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It is relatively modern concept that we spend two or more hours a day commuting to work. Before the industrial age, most goods and services were provide from or near the home, but now we rely on large factories and offices located in city or industrial centres. With many more women that now work outside the home, and the increase in population, our transport systems are struggling under the daily pressure.
As housing costs increase, it becomes more difficult to live close to where we work, and in London alone, millions of commuters run the daily rat race commute. Even the government wants businesses to offer employees opportunities to work from home to ease the burden on the deteriorating transport systems.
For those of us doing the daily nine to five and experiencing the joys of being stuck in someone’s sweaty armpit on the tube, getting home too late to put the children to bed, too tired to cook a proper meal or visit the gym/friends/etc., how often do we wonder why we do it? There might seem little choice if we want to be economically active and pursue our hard-won careers. This is because "flexible working" is often a dirty word to business-owners.
So why, when we have technologies to support alternative ways of working, do many employers still feel reluctant to implement, or worse fear the concept of flexible working? Worrying it will mean anarchy and chaos in the workplace, loss of control over employees, failure to service clients’ needs or worse still, loss of productivity and profits.
Employers need to step back and see the bigger picture. There are many different options to consider from all-inclusive flexible working policies to limited flexible working opportunities to ad hoc arrangements. Not forgetting of course their minimum legal obligations to consider requests for flexible working, allow time off to care for dependants, undertake training etc. - all businesses should get legal advice about these.
By offering choices to employees as to how they manage their time, attendance at the office, and workload, an employer can:
A happy workforce is consequently:
It follows that a workforce that spends fewer of their waking hours commuting (in an armpit or otherwise) is one that is more likely to:
As a result of having a happier workforce, your business reputation improves, your standing increases amongst your clients/customers and industry/competitors, and overall your profits increase.
These conclusions might seem overly simplistic, but there are workforce studies that support the benefits outlined above. Indeed, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) report that 50% of employees say that given the chance, they would like to work 1-2 days week at home.
Another factor to consider is your green credentials. Reducing travel and expenditure on office premises reduces carbon emissions, which is good for the environment and a useful marketing tool. AWA report that "Cost- and carbon-reduction are currently significant drivers for many organisations, and the smartest ones are already planning an employee-to-desk ratio of 15:10, cutting excessive, expensive office space by as much as 40 per cent. The future of the office is that it will no longer exist in its current form."
Whilst AWA envisage a large-scale cultural change in working practices in the future, involving all-inclusive flexible working practices that allow employees wide-ranging opportunities to work from home, hot-desk in other offices or business "hubs", change or reduce their working hours, etc., many employers just don’t feel ready to go the whole hog and adopt such generous flexible working practices, at least not for the time being. They are afraid of the cost, the impact of change on the workforce, their ability to provide a seamless service. Not all job roles are suited to working flexibly, or at least only to a limited extent. In fact, it is this limited extent which employers often don’t think about.
It doesn’t have to be "all or nothing", and you should get legal or HR advice about what limitations you could impose, and when a refusal to could be discriminatory and/or unlawful.
What if you offer just "ad hoc" home-working?
This differs from permanent flexible working in that instead of an employee working one day a week from home as a regular pattern, it is on an "as and when" basis and they are otherwise based in the office. This can be adopted on its own, or be a first step for putting more flexible arrangements in place in the future. It can also be implemented alongside a wider flexible working policy which applies to permanent arrangements.
Let’s look at a typical example - an employee needs to wait in at home for the boiler to be repaired. With an "ad hoc" flexible working practice, they have two options:
Option 1 – Take annual leave
Option 2 – Work from home
You might think these are extreme or exaggerated examples, and option one is not an argument against annual leave per se, but it demonstrates the possible impact that unplanned absence can have on your business.
Equally, working from home is not suitable for every type of job role – traffic wardens or flight attendants might have trouble arguing for home-working, even on an "ad hoc" basis, but for many job roles it can be a reasonable and sensible solution to situations when employees cannot make it into the workplace, even if it is not adopted as a general policy.
AWA’s recent study looked at flexible working practices at several large organisations. It concluded that after introducing a system of informal home-working, they had reduced sickness absence and higher performance and morale. Many found that "ad hoc" homeworking helped managers be more accepting of more formal permanent flexible arrangements.
Arrangements for "ad hoc" flexibility is suitable for when severe weather conditions or transport disruptions prevent employees getting to work, or where childcare arrangements break down or children are sick (there is also a legal obligation in this instance, so getting advice is essential). In principle, where the employee is willing and able to work but cannot make it into the office, it makes sense to allow them to work from home rather than taking a strict stance and withholding pay or forcing them to take annual leave. It also goes a long way towards good employee relations.
So how do you make it work?
There are several key things to remember if you allow "ad hoc" home-working, or permanent flexible working arrangements.
As a business, you probably already have some facilities and arrangements in place to enable a more flexible approach. For instance if you provide laptops or smartphones, if employees work "on the road" as part of their job and link back to the office, if they share desk-space or work from other locations, offices or venues. The impact on your business need not be as significant as you might think. In fact, the positive impact may take you by surprise.
Gelbergs Solicitors is based in Islington, London N1 and offers a comprehensive multi-disciplinary HR advice and employment law service to employers. We would be happy to hear from any business owners who would like a free assessment of their employment contracts, and HR policies and procedures, or who would like to discuss implementing flexible working practices in their business but don’t know where to start.
Call us on 020 7226 0570 and ask for Emmajane Taylor-Moran or Jane Manville. Our website can be found at www.gelbergs.co.uk and twitter at @gelbergs.